By Tristan Foster
One thing is clear: we live in strange times. The influence of the market has seeped into every facet – every wrinkle – of our existence, leaving the individual spliced and atomised and spliced again. But, if who we are indeed so fragmented, how do we love and be loved back? Forget about connecting with someone else, how do you connect with yourself? The reach of market forces of course extends to the manufacture of art and, indeed, the production of literature; how, then, do you go about writing a novel on these ideas?
Anthony Macris attempts to answer these questions with his second novel, Great Western Highway: A Love Story. The sequel to Macris’s 1997 novel Capital, Volume One, Part One, Great Western Highway looks at a day in the lives of two people who are curious to understand how, and if, there can be love when the external, market-driven world intrudes on and tangles with the internal world, and the individual is left riven.
The novel opens with Nick, the story’s protagonist, standing in line to get cash out of an ATM on Parramatta Road, one of the busiest and most built-up stretches of the Great Western Highway. Nick – thirty-something, unambitious and uncommitted – is in fact on the way to see Penny, his ex-girlfriend who he can’t get over even though they broke up because he couldn’t get over Christina, his girlfriend before Penny. While he waits, the bank’s ads about homes and loans and images of perfect people with perfect lives beam down on him, forcing him to reflect on the gulf between this life – successful and even, brimming with optimism and hope – and his own.
Though it is only down the road, it’s some time before Nick actually reaches Penny’s house for what is shaping up to be a lugubrious night in front of the television. We follow as he walks along the Great Western Highway, and advertising and the rush of traffic and music and noise washes over him. All of these things, everything from Thai restaurants to squashed Coke cans, hold personal meaning for him: ‘Nick looked up at the giant mobile that leaned over the highway and tried to fight off the sudden memory of the phone call it was determined to trigger off, a Brisbane-based Christina had said “no” to a London-based Nick.’
The setting is not made up of landmarks in the traditional sense but is instead populated with businesses and brand names which create a sense of place in their own way: a landscape of signs, pregnant with memories and meaning. This barrage of messages about what to buy, how to live and how to find happiness creates a feeling of claustrophobia, something that we are more or less superficially desensitised to in reality but which the novel succeeds in evoking.
While Nick is very much the conduit through which we engage with this world, before he reaches his destination the narrative’s point of view switches to shadowing Penny at JobClub, an agency for the unemployed where she works offering employment advice. The themes that rise out of the first chapter are here elaborated on and formalised – happiness versus unhappiness, success versus failure, the tide of employment due to market forces, the structure of power. Penny must navigate her way through these obstacles to the end of the workday and a meeting with Nick, where she must then try to find a way to reconcile her private wants and needs, whatever they are, with those of her former boyfriend’s.
At the novel’s literal and metaphorical core is a Modernist stream-of-consciousness monologue from former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The chapter, titled ‘Lateline’, is an examination of the Thatcherite free market from the point of view of the woman herself, with Thatcher’s thoughts filling the space between her answers to Lateline presenter Kerry O’Brien’s questions. ‘No you may not finish,’ she thinks as O’Brien pleads to be heard. Even if he manages to finish his question, he is drowned out, all but voiceless in the deluge. Maggie Thatcher as free market mouthpiece – it’s an extraordinary piece of literature.
After the Thatcher monologue, the narrative pivots again, going back to Nick’s time in post-Christina London. The narrative style undergoes a further transition, with this part of the story being told in second person, as if from the point of view of a patient old friend. Alone in a city of millions, Nick turns to the television for comfort. His breakup happens to coincide with the Gulf War, and as he wallows, the war plays out in 24 hour-news cycles on the TV screen. Rather than intruding, the televised war distracts, plotting the trajectory of Nick’s feelings for him, acting as a substitute for the lost lover: ‘You lie in bed or sit at the kitchen bench and watch the spectacle… Your whole nervous system is tuned to imminent chemical attack, imminent ground invasion, imminent scorched earth.’ This is the novel’s highest point.
The story concludes at one of the few places it can: outside Rick Damelian’s, the iconic car dealership that once spanned entire blocks of Parramatta Road. But the key word here is once – like many of the real-world businesses and brands that populate the novel, Rick Damelian’s is no more. Today the lots are empty, one day soon they will be ugly, over-priced high rises, the market economy’s cycle of success and failure continuing to spin.
Herein lies the problem that is central to Great Western Highway. While setting this kind of story in a concrete time and place is conceptually sound, it also puts it at risk of becoming anachronistic the moment it’s published. The risk becomes that much larger when the time it interrogates and philosophically engages with has already passed, if only just. Put another way, images of George Bush Sr.’s Gulf War and the Lateline Thatcher interview might be fresh in Nick’s mind, but not as fresh in the reader’s, having been overshadowed by more recent and, arguably, equally relevant events.
There is evidence that a sequel to Capital, Volume One, Part One has existed for over a decade, with extracts of it having appeared in all of Australia’s major literary journals. Macris himself makes this fact clear in the ‘Author’s note’. With its knotted publishing history only having been untangled following the 2011 release of When Horse Became Saw, Macris’s moving story of his family’s struggle with his son’s autism, perhaps it’s grimly fitting that market forces kept Great Western Highway off bookshelves until now. However, the problem of a disconnect created by a delayed publication has a simple solution: respond again. A Volume One surely demands a Volume Two.
Great Western Highway is ambitious, experimental literature. While Macris’s use of the commercial twilight zone that is the highway, carving through the novel in the way that it carves through the lives of so many, is just a little bit brilliant, this occasionally disjointed novel won’t be for everyone. It’s for this reason that UWA Publishing should be commended for taking a chance with this unconventional story of modern love.
Great Western Highway: A Love Story (Capital, Volume One, Part Two)
The University of Western Australia Publishing, 2012
Read an extract from Great Western Highway here.